Lessons beyond the textbook

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When Nandita Das Gupta came to Chennai to pursue her higher studies at IIT-Madras, she could hardly speak two sentences in English fluently.

“Looking back, participating in Mardi Gras, which is now Saarang, changed me a lot. It made me open up and I had to interact with a lot of people like my fellow coordinators, and participants,” recalls Gupta. By the end of her master’s degree, not only could she speak English fluently, she also became a more confident person.

Now, as a professor at IIT-M, and the faculty adviser for cultural activities, Gupta witnesses similar transformations in many of her students.

College is a transformative experience for all students. The transformation is more evident in students who regularly involve themselves in activities beyond the classroom, such as organising cultural or technical festivals that demand much from them and also reward them with skill development in return.

According to the Student Involvement theory by Alexander W. Astin published in 1984, “the greater the student’s involvement in college, the greater will be the amount of student learning and personal development.”

College festivals offer a platform for such an involvement, the outcome of which are learning skills that are beyond the realms of the textbook – leadership, crisis management, time management, persistence, multitasking, and public speaking, to name a few.

Picking up soft skills

Like Gupta, T. Lalita made a conscious decision to use the festival as a platform to transform her “supremely shy” self. A student of political science at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, Lalita volunteered for one of the many festivals that her college hosted; the biggest and most popular being Malhar. As part of the PR team of Malhar, her duties included escorting journalists to and from the event, updating the social media feed and ensuring coverage for the event. It was not easy at first, she confesses, but over the three years in college that she volunteered for the festivals, she managed to finally break out of her shell.

While these are experiences that one comes to expect while organising a festival, there are several that are unexpected, forcing either learning or realisation upon the student.

A couple of years ago, Amla Nair was leading a team of 20 volunteers into a “rival” college. As the head of external publicity for one of the college festivals at St.Xavier’s, it was her responsibility to promote the festival in other colleges to ensure a good turnout. But the problem was that her college festival was scheduled for the same dates as the other college’s. So, naturally, the rivalry was palpable.

No amount of practice or training could have prepared Amla for what happened during the publicity visit.

“We were rounded up and ragged by around 150 students of the rival college. It was a nightmare! I was responsible for the safety of my team, most of whom are still learning the ropes of publicity and promotions. But I surprised myself when I stayed calm, and managed to get out amicably and peacefully without confrontation. It was an intimidating experience, but that day, I learnt something about myself – that I could handle such a situation without losing my head,” says Amla. It is a learning that she will carry with her well beyond her college years.

Enhancing employability

Faculty and students agree that the experience of organising college festivals gives students exposure to skills that are useful in their careers, like project management, coordination, finance, marketing, sales, logistics, and public relations.

Siddhant Narula, who is simultaneously pursuing a B.E. and an M.Sc. at BITS Pilani, made a conscious move to volunteer for his college festival’s organising committee because he knew it would be a talking point during job interviews. He currently heads sponsorship and marketing for Oasis’17.

Scheduled to take place from October 31 to November 3, Oasis has eight heads, and each head leads a team of about 25 people. Besides, there are approximately 30 other teams of 20 people each. That’s a total of around 800 people working for the festival. The massive scale of the festival – a budget of ₹1.5 crore, 85-90 events over 96 hours, and a footfall of around 14,000 – is the perfect opportunity for students like Narula to showcase their capabilities and talk about it to their potential employers.

“One of the most important skills for any job interview or any kind of work is one’s interpersonal communication skills and that is something that this kind of work can train you for. People with such experiences have usually gained preference over others as far as placements at BITS go. At the end of the day, it’s not about what’s on your resume, but what you have learned from that experience, and that is what most companies are surprised to find out at BITS,” he explains.

Narula’s statement is not without foundation. Abhiroop Guha, Talent Acquisition Lead, Global Operations, at GE, vouches for it. “Organisations are increasingly looking for candidates who have a well-rounded profile in academics, extracurricular and sports. CGPA and academic projects are not the only deciding factors when it comes to shortlisting candidates. When candidates participate in tech or cultural festivals, they get exposure to management skills at a nascent stage. Students in organising committees get to work in teams, use their analytical mindset to solve problems and take real-time decisions,” he says.

The most important benefit of such an involvement, perhaps, might be best experienced during the college years itself. The grind of academics, projects, exams and placements, are inevitable causes of stress. Without a proper support system, a student who may not have done well in an exam may spiral into depression. Being involved in extracurriculars helps avoid it, feels Gupta.

“We always support students being involved in college festivals as we see how it benefits them. It helps them relieve some stress caused by the tough academic programme. When they are constantly surrounded by their peers, there is less chance of them feeling lonely or depressed, which in turn reflects in their classroom behaviour,” she says.

It cannot be denied that gaining technical or subject knowledge is the main purpose of college education; but that knowledge may need to be packaged with the right skills to be more effective in the real world. That is why the onus lies equally on the college to create opportunities for such skill-development activities with an awareness that these do not compete with the students’ academic pursuits, but rather, enhance them.